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  • Markets and Machines:Work in the Technological Sensoryscapes of Finance
  • Caitlin Zaloom (bio)

In the hit 1983 film Trading Places, the august banking brothers Randolph and Mortimer Duke bet one dollar on the answer to the question of what matters more, environment or genetics, nature or nurture. The pair wager on the fortunes of Louis Winthorpe III (Dan Akroyd), a pedigreed white commodities trader from whom they strip job, family, and reputation, and Billy Ray Valentine (Eddie Murphy), an African American hustler and con artist, whom they set out to remake into a successful businessman. The Dukes's social experiment unravels as Winthorpe and Valentine learn about the scheme and unite to take revenge on the brothers, conspiring to bankrupt their bosses and enrich themselves. In the film's climactic scene, Valentine takes his place on a trading floor that is teeming with activity. Immersed in the sea of bodies, he begins to sell enormous numbers of orange juice futures contracts, driving down prices, bringing financial ruin to the film's comic villains, and earning Louis and himself enough money for an immediate beachside retirement.

The decade after the film's release found real life financial firms engaged in far more ambitious social experiments—experiments motivated by economic concerns and fueled by technological innovations. During the 1990s, financial exchanges themselves traded places, largely abandoning the wild and boisterous pits where men like Winthorpe and Valentine made their deals face-to-face, instead moving to high-tech digital dealing rooms where speculators work quietly in front of computers, face-to-screen. This transformation—essential to the "Americanization" and globalization of financial markets—required both technological and social engineering at the levels of both individuals and systems. The spread of "American style" or "Chicago style" trading systems depends on the new social dynamics facilitated by technological and architectural changes. More trenchantly, these changes illustrate the ideological power of American neoliberal assumptions that are made material in the design and application of information technologies, architectural designs, and work practices within [End Page 815] and among increasingly "virtual" marketplaces. Yet such policy choices are not distinct from corporeal and sensory experiences. In fact, they are intimately connected. What people see and hear—and the technologies that regulate such sensory inputs—have profound effects on the sorts of things that get done, not only in major global financial markets but in office and commercial spaces around the world and at all levels.

Market makers—a diverse cast of financial managers, traders, economists, architects, and software designers—coalesced in the 1990s to craft technological devices, forge workplace conditions, and create new spaces where Chicago-style trading and the competitive individuals who practice it could flourish. Their projects would ultimately affect financial markets throughout the world, marrying electronic technologies and screen-based trading to what critics often refer to as the "Americanization" and "neoliberalization" of the global economy: the process of reconfiguring historically embedded institutional structures to establish novel market forms. However, it is important to note that the Chicago style of trading—by which I mean the practice of individual speculators, each trading for his own account and directly competing with every other dealer in the market—was itself honed through such "practical experiments." 1 The process of imagining a perfect market and refining the technological and physical design of the marketplace to reflect this vision is an integral part of the modern market system that always fails to live up to its ideal state. 2

Globalization theorists such as David Harvey and Manuel Castells argue that under neoliberalism, capitalist institutions have used information technology to flatten the distinctions among places, reducing the significance of spatial distance and temporal difference. 3 They claim that this is nowhere more true than in the sphere of global finance, since economic networks are bound together with technological systems that permit institutions to coordinate activity in real time on a planetary scale, and that allow modern financial instruments to turn commodities—oranges, grain, Treasury bonds, and the like—into abstractions that are bought and sold thousands of times without ever moving an inch. Even global skeptics, it seems, are willing to admit that the speed and scale of financial markets...


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